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Photos by Yan Pekar
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The restaurant world is a constant whirl. Consider the pomp and ceremony of the classic fine dining establishment, these days traded for the more laid-back vibe of restaurants like Tickets, Disfrutar and Bistreau, who have done away with the napery and acres of glassware and cutlery in exchange for sharing plates and bare tabletops. Meanwhile, the more casual eateries and tapas bars are pushing the boat out with natty graphics and interior designers to create streamlined, choreographed experiences. Effectively, this means the lines between formal and informal are blurring to the point of being almost unrecognisable, with the latest wave of openings suggesting a more freestyle approach to eating out in general.
The term being bandied about is ‘cooking-without-borders’ or ‘unrestricted [fill-in-type-of-cuisine]’, and it’s being led by young chefs, sommeliers and front of house teams who, while respectful of a product, providence and tradition, see no reason to be constrained by it. Although there’s nothing super new in this—think the merging of Japanese Peruvian to make Nikkei, or more recently Japanese Catalan, so far no name to call its own—these guys are taking it one step further and adding whatever works to their repertoire. It’s fusion if you like, all grown up.
Australian chef Damien Bolger of the Box Social at Poble Sec’s new Brummell Hotel is a perfect example of making this work. In his kitchen he successfully mixes Asian techniques with South American recipes and Mediterranean ingredients to create dishes that are surprising, playful, without pretension and utterly delicious. My taste buds go into overdrive when called to attention by the tingle of exotic spices and snappy freshness—a chayote kimchi (chayote is a crunchy, mild-flavoured Mexican fruit, hailing from the same family as gourds and melons), or a devilishly creamy burrata topped with a cheek-puckering jalapeño-spiced salsa verde—and in Bolger’s hands, dishes like these show brilliantly unconventional twists on emblematic global dishes.
“Burrata is traditionally served with peppery rocket, acidic tomatoes and balsamic,” he explained when he came over for a chat, “So I thought I’d apply those principles to Mexican ingredients and see what came out—jalapeños for a streak of heat and lemon juice to crack the creaminess of the cheese.” It’s a triumph, like everything else on this tightly edited menu, which starts with smaller, cheaper dishes that get gradually bigger, richer and more expensive. Ordering this way defies the constraints of starters and mains, but is more substantial than tapas. You could easily zip in for a bowl of ceviche for lunch, or work your way through the entire card with a bunch of friends. “I don’t want people to eat to format,” he said, “I want them to explore, talk, share.”
Wednesday night in the leafy, cobbled courtyard of the restaurant, the vibe is youthful and lively without being in-your-face trendy. It’s too sleek to be hipster, too relaxed to be luxe. It’s something else—comfortable, confident, a fun-loving, grown-up place where you can grab a pre-dinner spritz or a post-dinner G&T at the cocktail bar, and linger beneath the stars over a summer menu that reads like poetry. I dream of finocchiona (Tuscan cured fennel sausage) drizzled with mandarin mustard; courgette flowers stuffed with feta, pistachios and roses; Jerusalem artichokes with dates, kumquats and roast chicken reduction; roast pumpkin and richly herby butter; and kangaroo fillet with green apples, shallots and red chard. But those are the things we don’t have. Instead, after kimchi and burrata, we tuck into butter-soft scallop ceviche enlivened by the gentle heat of chilli amarillo and freshened with melon and lime; a complex concoction of roasted octopus with whole edamame beans and a pulverised sprinkling of miso and sesame that seems to me a sophisticated upgrade of Pulpo a la Feira (not that there’s anything wrong with the classic); and a hearty carrillada (pork cheeks) sprinkled with dried prawns, chilli and celery that flirts with Thai. I see it as a festive mooch around the tastiest corners of the world and as we finish up a bottle of Ekam (an unexpectedly lively blend of Riesling and Albariño that fits Bolger’s food to a tee), I find myself thinking what a relief it is to eat this way.
There’s something extraordinarily freeing about the free-form, no-rules, throw-together approach. It puts the joy back into eating out, and for that you’ll get no complaints from me.
Price: Around €45 per person for several sharing plates plus wine.